Edel Rodriguez on What it Takes to Design a Great Cover: A conversation with an award-winning artist
Intentionally or not, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the work of Cuban-American artist Edel Rodriguez. The painter, graphic designer, and children’s book author creates art that is so powerful, it’s capable of igniting international debates, instigating passionate rebuttals, and sparking a wide variety of emotions that range from love to fury. In fact, many of his covers for TIME magazine are now considered iconic because of the strength of the reactions they generate.
“For a while, I thought I’d be a psychologist,” reveals Rodriguez in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. That makes sense, he is transparent about being interested in perception, people and politics, all of which are clearly featured in his art. But it is his remarkable ability to convey a message with an image that best hints at his understanding of the human mind. Using a fairly conservative palette of colors and a strategic amount of detail, his images are like arrows purposefully aimed at the emotional and intelligence center of our beings.
People are not always conscious of the impact of commercial art and design. They see signs and posters, covers of books and magazines, as well as murals and graffiti, which often blend together to make up the general backdrop of life. Rodriguez knows this, because at one point, he too did not consciously register these things as anything other. Growing up in the Cuban countryside town of El Gabriel, he never took art or read books on the subject: “I didn’t really understand what art was.” But once he did, he made it his life.
Blending the line between career and hobby, Rodriguez views both as two sides of the same coin. Using a variety of materials, he creates work that ranges from conceptual to portraiture and landscape. Aside from creating personal work and fielding commissions from all types of clients, he is also a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, who teaches sophomore year illustration and junior year typography. “Both are about learning how to be an inventive storyteller and using each towards publishing in books and editorial,” he explains.
His work has been published in magazines such as TIME, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and many others. It’s also been commissioned by corporate giants and government agencies, like The Postal Service that in 2005 released the Cha-Cha-Cha stamp illustrated by Rodriguez. ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Edel Rodriguez and learning more about his history, career, and what influences his incredible attention-grabbing art.
So, you’re from Cuba. How was your childhood there?
I grew up in the Cuban countryside. It was a place where [almost] everyone was either a farmer or worked at the nearby sugarcane refinery. But I had a great childhood. When I got older, I realized how lucky I was as a child. I was very loved by everyone — my parents, who stayed together; my grandparents, who lived right next door — I didn’t have any family difficulties. Having something so positive as a kid, it’s rare.
At the time, I didn’t realize that we lived in a poor area and that we were very poor. I was just a kid having fun, playing outside, and climbing trees — having a very different type of childhood than American kids have. In Cuba, you’re pretty much outdoors and I’ve noticed that over time, that makes you a lot more in touch with how the world works; how things sound, how things feel when you’re either outdoors or your house is open to the outdoors. I think that’s important.
This was during the Cold War, so there were a lot of issues between Cuba and the United States. It was also a time when people were trying to escape communism, [including my family]. In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift happened. My father was threatened by the Cuban authorities and was feeling a lot of pressure, so he gathered the four of us (himself, his wife, Edel and his sister) and had our family in Florida arrange to have us picked up. We were put in a detention camp for about a week and then we were put on this boat and sent to the United States.
Does an experience like that leak into your work?
I think it shows up in all sorts of ways in my work. You see my imagery, some of it is Afro-Cuban, that comes from how I grew up, most of my friends were Afro-Cuban. Here we have this delineation of race, where black people are in certain areas and white people are in certain areas. In Cuba we were all poor, it didn’t really matter which race someone was. So, there’s that background, and then the political aspects that come into play.
My grandparents stayed behind. They didn’t want to leave. So, this [decision] split the whole family. That and landing in America with its new culture. One day, we were looking at communist propaganda billboards and the next day we were looking at McDonald's arches and Burger King logos. So, it’s a weird thing to show up in a completely different culture.
And maybe in my more recent political stuff, it shows up. A lot of these things are in a memoir that I’ve been drawing and writing. It’s called WORM and it’s coming out this fall.
How did you get interested in the arts?
It’s something that happened naturally when I was little. I started drawing, like every other kid, but I never stopped. In Cuba, we didn’t have pencils and paper just laying around, I was mostly having fun with my friends, playing baseball in the streets. But I [drew more] when I arrived in the United States.
How did you end up attending Pratt Institute in Brooklyn?
I applied for art and architecture there and a college in Miami, where I was living. I got into the art program at both places, but I ended up going to Pratt because of what my teacher told me: “It’s a very good school. Go up there and see what happens.” So I did. Once I finished my first year, I was kind of hooked on art. I had some very good art teachers and I began to see the world in a different way.
How did your teachers open your mind to art?
It was mostly their passion about art and the way they discussed the world around us. For example: Mrs. Mary Buckley Parriott was my mentor. She would come into the Light, Color, and Design class and ask us abstract questions like: “Look at the sky, what color is the sky?” And five minutes later she’d ask again: “What color is the sky now?” And then I started noticing that the world around us is constantly changing. I’ve never really thought about that before, but here was this lady asking me questions and pointing things out that I had never noticed.
My drawing teacher was the same, he made me realize that if you stare at something long enough, you start to understand how something works, and if you move your point of view, you start to see things differently. There were all of these exercises that trained your brain to see how things functioned. So that combination of rigor and attention to detail was fostered in my first year of Pratt, and it really made me think that I wanted to be a painter. So, I went in there as a major in advertising and changed my major to painting and that’s what I studied.
How did you get into advertising?
I went to Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, where I was making t-shirts and advertising posters, a very commercial kind of work; I was basically submitting work to local poster competitions, festivals and things like that, and I won a lot of them. [When I got to Pratt] I just rejiggered what my passion became.
What was the first poster that you created intentionally for submitting?
It was an annual poster contest sponsored by the French embassy or French cultural events center, in Miami. We needed to somehow integrate the Eiffel Tower into the Miami landscape. So I did this poster with the Eiffel Tower on the beach with a bunch of sunbathers lying around. I was very good at airbrushing and these were the 1980s, so the airbrush was a big deal.
I won first place and my teacher and I were offered free French classes and a free ticket to Paris each. I’ve never been on an airplane before, I was not even a citizen yet. The funny thing is that when I got home and told my parents, my dad was like: “Are you crazy? We’re not going to Paris! I don’t speak French. No, we’re not doing this.”
My teacher said she’d give me her ticket or buy mine if I didn’t want to go or couldn’t. So, I ended up selling my ticket to her. I won the following year, too, and automatically sold my ticket to her again, because I knew my parents weren’t going to go. So, two years in a row my teacher and her husband went to Paris.
As a kid, that must have hurt.
I didn’t have any perspective. I sold the ticket for $500, and I liked the $500. Eventually I got to go to Paris, because I was studying in Europe. But that’s when I started to see art as a way to make a living. It’s weird to look at art as a practical decision. But, for me, I was in high school working maintenance at Toys”R”Us making $3 an hour, and all of the sudden someone bought a painting for $800. I did the math and that sort of changed my whole perspective about what an art career could be.
While you were a student at Pratt, you had a chance to intern at three very popular companies, Spy magazine, MTV and Penguin Books. How did you get these opportunities?
There was an office at Pratt where you could look through internship opportunities. I thought maybe children’s books would be something I’d enjoy. I got an internship at Penguin but [soon realized] I didn’t like working in an office doing children’s books that much. Then I was working at the Pratt newspaper doing graphic design and I liked it, so I got an internship at a magazine called SPY. I liked that a lot.
At the time, MTV was one of the most creative places in the city. I thought it was going to be my job, because I was about to graduate. But once I got there, I realized I didn’t like video that much. It’s sort of a different mentality, so I tried to move to their print division to be a designer, but it was very difficult to get a job there. So I moved on, but I used every internship to figure out what I did and didn’t want to do. The magazine, or print work, seemed to be what I liked the most.
You mentioned doing graphic design for your school, when did you learn graphic design?
I was on a work-study program, where I got $1000 per semester but had to work for it in some way. So, my first year I worked at the admissions office and got credit for that, but I didn’t want to stay there, so I went to the school paper and asked to work there for my work study. They hired me, but the cool thing was that they were just introducing Apple [computers] into their production, so I read about the software, I read all the manuals, and started designing on those.
Sounds like you had to learn on the job.
Every job I’ve ever gotten I didn’t know how to do. I just got myself into it. I highly recommend that to everyone. Jobs can be very specific, and they almost force you to make stuff up [on your application] because by definition you’ve never done that exact job before. I would say that I have experience and I am willing to learn new things. As soon as I heard back, I'd start doing my homework. I read manuals and studied and did all that stuff. Now, there is just too much technology and too many things happening at once; you can’t learn them all.
So what did you like about graphic design?
I was interested in the idea of journalism, telling stories about what’s happening in the world. I think that growing up in a place that didn’t have free press, like Cuba, made me appreciate it more. I was fascinated by the idea of telling stories.
In high school, there was a contest for TIME magazine. We had to do a fake cover design. I won that contest and got a free subscription to the publication when I was about 17 or 18. That made me very interested in journalism and TIME magazine specifically; I saw my school newspaper as a small version of it. We were putting out stories and illustrating the stories ourselves.
Did you happen to grow up around graffiti or street art?
Not necessarily. I would call propaganda Cuban street art. But there’s a lot of graffiti in Miami, I do like some of it, not all of it. But I didn’t really think about graffiti as art at the time. I was practicing my name in graffiti when I was a teenager, but I didn’t think much of it.
Did you have a personal tag?
Yeah, but I’m not gonna tell you what it was. My cousins and I had a whole breakdancing crew, so we were into all sorts of shenanigans. It’s likely that street art influences are so embedded in my work that I don’t think about them that much, I am much more interested in the street art that is more accidental.
In places like Cuba, Mexico and Bolivia, it’s common to see people paint weird pictures on the walls or sides of buildings meant to advertise something, like a papaya shop. These are likely done by people who didn’t have an art education, but I was and am always fascinated by those kinds of things. That kind of painting aspires to be great, and I love that stuff. It’s not graffiti or anything, just culture. So, if there’s an influence, it’s from that.
What did you make for the winning cover of TIME magazine?
This was back in 1988 and the topic was the environment. I did an image of a hand sort of tearing the cover of TIME magazine [featuring] a nice landscape; behind it was a toxic wasteland.
So you graduated from Pratt in 1994. And you started working at TIME shortly thereafter, is that right?
I worked as an entry level designer first, for about a year, or a year and a half. Then I got promoted to assistant art director, and I became the art director for international, doing covers for Latin American and Canadian editions, in 1997. I think I was 26 at the time, which made me the youngest art director for TIME international.
At first they were testing me, there was a trial basis of about six months. But I did well, so they kept me. I had been itching to do more important work at the magazine, and when I want to do something, I just sort of do it; I don’t ask for permission necessarily. So, if there was a cover story, I’d create my own cover for it and show it to the art director. I did that for long enough, where the covers that I was creating were interesting enough for them to think that they should promote me to start making some. I think I had a special background in terms of my combination of illustration and painting, which was pretty rare for people on staff. Most were either designers or journalists, and I think they appreciated what I could bring to that position.
You attended Hunter college while you were working at TIME to earn a M.F.A. Why?
When I graduated from Pratt, I didn’t know what to do. So, I applied to graduate school right away, and I got into the MFA program at Hunter College. At the same time, I got my entry level job at TIME magazine, but it was just a designer job, I had to work about three days a week. So, both of these things started happening at the same time.
I tell my students: “You can’t always pick what you want, sometimes what you don’t want picks you, and you realize you do want it right in the middle of it.” I think it’s funny how some think they can plan and curate their career, so much of it happens by accident and happenstance. But you can work these accidents to your advantage; you can mold a career out of what accidentally happens to you if you’re sharp enough to take advantage of opportunities. So many people don’t take opportunities because they are so focused on this one goal or dream they had in mind.
What lessons did you learn during your years at TIME, between 1994 and 2008?
The thing I learned, that I didn’t [previously know] about good design, is cropping. It’s a very simple thing, but how you choose to frame a picture — and I haven’t even talked about the design or what the image is — can change the meaning, feeling, or the message of that picture. It can change how people see it.
So you have an image. Don’t just stop, take that image and crop it, put the headline on it. It’s that combination of image with text and proper cropping that really affects what the final result is. And I didn’t know that until I got to work there. That’s what I teach in my classes or workshops: You can keep going, why stop? That is something that I still carry with me.
And you have to put your ego away, that’s another thing I learned. If you’ve been working on something for a few days and something better comes along, you go along with it, because it’s better. I also learned how editors can make a story much better, which is something I didn’t really appreciate before.
Why do you like working for magazines?
They’re as close as I’ve come to holding powerful people accountable. There was no free press in Cuba, and we had to leave because we couldn’t hold a dictator accountable. So it became very interesting to me.
When you are commissioned for a cover now, how much art direction do you get?
Rarely is anything given to me as art direction. What I get is an article. I read the article and send back 5-7 sketches of whatever I like. Those sketches are then evaluated to see what fits best with the article, but I am not told what to draw.
Before I designed my latest cover for TIME, I got a call from the art director: “Hey, we’re doing something for the indictment, let us know if you have any ideas.” I sent over a bunch of ideas and they liked one of them, so we pursued it, I finished it, and then the story changed a bit throughout the week.
[When I asked if they were still going to use it, the art director told me that they weren’t sure, as they were waiting to see if any good photographs would come out. And I thought that made sense, because they didn’t want to have too much of an opinion on the matter. That’s when I thought of creating the thumbprint, which was not positive or negative.]
So, I quickly did a rough sketch with a thumbprint and even hesitated before sending it in, because I thought I was bothering the art director, but they wrote back right away letting me know that they loved it and were going to use it if a photo wouldn’t come along.
So, on the day of the indictment, [March 30th, 2023,] I was watching the news and there were no good pictures coming out, so I was thinking it’s likely they’d pick my picture and right away I heard back: “Hey, we’re going with your image!” So there’s a little bit of back and forth; they guided me along a little bit with some direction, but the rest was up to me.
What do you hope to share with people in your graphic novel, WORM?
In America, we often hear that immigrants come here because they want something, right? That bothers me, so I thought: Why won’t I try to tell a story about what immigrants leave behind. So, I spent a lot of the book talking about what my life was, and it was great; I had a big family and a great home, and overnight we had to leave our house, our belongings, our loved ones. I wanted to explain to people why immigrants decide to leave where they are, and it’s usually about safety. So that story is about how I ended up here, how I grew up, and how I became the artist that I am today.
You have worked on so many different projects. How do you choose them, or do people seek you out?
No, the way illustration works is people get in touch with you, I wouldn’t be doing a film poster for fun, because there are other things I would be doing for fun, other art. I had Joel Coen, one of the Coen Brothers, get in touch with me about doing a poster for The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021). I love his work, so I did that poster. It’s the same with album covers. It’s also the same with Opera companies, they find me and commission me to do their season’s posters and then I focus on doing that.
A lot of your work incorporates the color red, where did this come from?
When I was doing painting studies for my graduate program, a lot of it was personal commentary about growing up under communism. I ended up with a big red wall covered with portraits, and that was the first time I started using the color in a big way. Red has always been associated with Cuba, China and Russia for me. I wanted to take it back, so I started using it much more heavily in my work, trying to give the color red a more personal meaning. It’s also a great color to express many different things, so I like it.
What are your favorite books?
1984 by George Orwell (1903 -1950), The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1919 - 2010), and Pedagogical Sketchbook by Paul Klee (1879 - 1940) .
Favorite graphic designers and favorite fine artists?
So, graphic designers: I like Cuban designer Antonio Pérez Ñiko, and American designers Milton Glaser and Saul Bass (1920 - 1996), for the impact and the simplicity of their work.
And, fine artists: I love Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), Herri Matisse 1869 - 1954), and Käthe Kollwitz (1867 - 1945), because of their experimentation, use of color, and not being afraid to go into new areas and directions.
Are you someone who believes less is more, sometimes?
Yes, generally, and I also believe that you don’t have to say everything with one image.
How important is it to you to have your work embody the idea of liberty?
It’s very important. It’s probably the main driver of everything that I do, not just my work but my life. I think it’s important for everyone to express themselves.
Note* All art works by Edel Rodriguez are the property of Edel Rodriguez. Images have been updated on 5.15.2023